Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster

Topics: Lightning, Mann Gulch fire, Scientific method Pages: 5 (653 words) Published: May 1, 2015


Final Project Part One
Cary Farrington
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Critique of Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations:
The Mann Gulch Disaster

In Helena National Forest in Montana, a lightning storm passed through one summer afternoon. The next day, August 5th, 1949, a forest ranger spotted a wildfire believed to have been started by a lightning strike in an area known as the Mann Gulch. Sixteen Firefighters were dispatched by air, met up with the forest ranger who spotted the fire, and all began fighting the fire together.

This paper will serve as a critique of the article The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster written by Karl E. Weick and published in the Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 38 in 1993.

Weick describes many, mostly qualitative and observational, research methods such as interviews, trace records, archival records, direct observation, personal experience, and mathematical models (Weick, 1993) that were used by Maclean in his award-winning book Young Men and Fire, which describes the Mann Gulch fire. These methods were all good methods, or at least, the best methods available to MacLean. Twenty-eight years had passed by the time Maclean started his research, and only two survivors remained alive. Therefore, Maclean was left with archive research, interviews of the two survivors, interviews of a few of the deceased firefighters’ surviving family members, and his own personal experience as a forest service firefighter.

Weick is left with the work Maclean did in 1976 and expands upon it by stripping the “prose” of Macleans writing and using only the context for analysis (Weick, 1993). So the research Weick can be categorized as ex post facto, since the research happened after the event. Exploratory, since it carries a loose structure and its objective is to identify future research or organizational application. Monitoring, since there was no communication between Weick and anyone associated with the fire, or the writing of Macleans book. It is a cross-sectional, case study, as it represents a single point in time, and it places and emphasis on a full contextual analysis of this one event (Cooper, Schindler, 2014).

Weick used these research methods because he saw a correlation between the events that happened in the Mann Gulch fire and tendencies in organizational structures. He chose the Mann Gulch fire incident because the breakdown of organizational structure and communication variables is evident and applicable in a variety of situations.

If the same incident were to be considered as the focus of the case study, other research methods may render themselves useless, as Maclean and Weick positioned themselves as close to the actual incident as possible. But with the passing of time, the methods available become unavailable or obsolete. Had Maclean begun his research nearer to the time of the incident instead of 28 years after the fact, he could have used a host of other research methods such as surveys of forest service firefighters not involved in the incident, surveys of forest service employees, surveys and interviews with forest service leadership, and controlled experiments to recreate the incident with those involved.

When the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, investigates an aircraft accident, they recreate the simulation with test pilots in a controlled environment with controlled variables to gain knowledge on how most proficient pilots would have handled the same set of variables. Had Maclean done this with test subjects who had experience with fighting forest fires, much knowledge could have been gleaned from the results. Although it could have been difficult for the families and those involved, this research could have shown more light on the reason behind the breakdown of the organizational structure in the Mann Gulch Disaster....
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